Personal Essay

Unheroic Journeys: Master Narratives and Collective Imagination

By Winnu D

Storytelling is an intrinsic part of who we are as a species. In a 2014 article, American anthropologist Polly W. Wiessner noted that fireside stories put listeners on the same emotional wavelength. This was critical for “for the extension of cultural institutions over time and space” as it linked individuals from different bands into larger “imagined communities”.

These imaginations are shaped less by the story and more by the teller. Valmiki’s Ram and Ravana are very different from Bhasa’s Ram and Ravana, who are all different from the Mappila Ram and Ravana. But when one story overshadows all the others, a dominant myth is created, and can distort reality itself as it shifts the collective imagination.

These dominant stories become the myths and fairytales that every child is inducted into; the first template for films and novels. One of the stories that has captured the collective imagination for decades now is the hero’s journey. Not a single story, it’s more a distillation of commonalities in the arcs of various male protagonists in mythology through the ages, as articulated by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

But when one story overshadows all the others, a dominant myth is created, and can distort reality itself as it shifts the collective imagination.

Very simply, a boy or man is living an ordinary life, when he is ‘called’ to go on an adventure or quest. He faces obstacles along the way (including women who want to tempt him off his path) and meets guides (mostly male) who help him through. Finally, he comes out on the other end having saved the world. Campbell was so convinced of this being the one story that he went so far as to speculate that ‘mythology was the same everywhere’.

It has been subject to much criticism, but none as close to home as Campbell’s own student—author and therapist Maureen Murdock. Dissatisfied with the role that women played in the hero’s arc, she spoke to Campbell who replied, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realise that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”

It feels almost pointless expending words contradicting such a statement. Even the most basic benchmarks that we have today, like the Bechdel-Wallace test and the Sexy Lamp test, are enough to ensure that women are written (and read) better than that. But Campbell’s monomyth—which shot into popular imagination through Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (1992)—has had an outsized impact on our collective imagination. It has influenced storytellers across mediums, from new writers to directors of big budget Hollywood films.

Some of the many scholars and writers who have rebutted Campbell’s monomyth.

In The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness (1990), Murdock lays out a counter to Campbell’s ideas. Her work was guided by her therapeutic practice, personal experiences, and myths collected from every populated continent. The myths that Murdock chose weren’t more obscure than those that Campbell referenced. In fact, Maria Tatar—the first tenured female professor at Harvard whose studies of folklore led her to write her own book, The Heroine with 1001 Faces (2021)—says that while some stories with female protagonists were silenced, many others are simply overlooked.

Murdock’s heroines weren’t waiting around for men to get their lives started. She begins her journeys in a world that prizes the masculine, seeking success in recognisably masculine ways. She is ‘called’ when she feels discomfort in that role. Her aim is to rediscover the feminine in herself; her journey is inward rather than outward; meeting female guides along the way, she heals herself and ultimately, finds a balance between the masculine and feminine. While Campbell’s heroes finish their journey and return as victors to be celebrated by society, Murdock’s heroines arrive when they realise that they don’t need to prove themselves to anyone.

Whose Lens is it Anyway?

Murdock’s heroine’s journey theory isn’t perfect. There are some questionable assertions about depression being a sacred journey (Murdock is a therapist herself, so that’s iffy territory), a rather diligent adherence to a gender binary and to heterosexuality (though there is a passing, frustratingly unexplained, reference to a story where Hecate kisses Persephone), and definitions of femininity that might not resonate with even the most earth-goddess identifying women (femininity as it relates to menstruation, marriage, and babies).

The adherence of Murdock and Campbell’s retellings to heteronormative templates is not the fault of the mythos, but the lens. In a wonderfully titled 2024 study Not Getting your story straight: queering heroes’ journeys and heteronormative timelines, researcher and lecturer Stayci Taylor says that we tend to pick up these blueprints fairly quickly, and mainstream storytelling and society has created “a feedback loop of (hetero)normativity”. In fact, in Ancient Greece, to be attracted to other men was a sign of masculinity. Achilles, Hercules, and Zeus all had sex with men at various points. And this is just one of the cultures that Campbell and Murdock have drawn from; most civilisations have historically had mythology that included queer characters.

An additional concern is Campbell and Murdock’s reading of non-Western myths. While it is a commendable effort by white, Western scholars to look beyond their own worlds, many of these myths still play an active, complicated part in extant religious belief systems. Of the variety of female figures that Murdock references, the Hindu goddess Kali is most familiar to me (Campbell refers to Krishna and Arjuna. We definitely don’t have enough time to get into that). But what Murdock misses is that Kali is not just a symbol of female empowerment, she’s also a symbol of oppressor caste dominance, deriving her power from brutally murdering asuras, leaders of oppressed caste peoples.

Some Stories are More Equal than Others

People in Camp Campbell have argued that the hero’s journey was never meant to be exclusively for men. It’s unquestionably a dated argument. Most things that work for everyone only work when the ‘everyone’ is a fairly small, uniform cohort, like the famed democracy of ancient Greece. Defining one thing as ‘the norm’ and everything else as ‘other’ is problematic—and an exhausting redistribution of labour to the ‘deviant’ majority. As Stayci Taylor says, “The continued defence of homogenising models, such as the hero’s journey, is curious, because it suggests there is something to be lost when we stop pretending that we are all the same, devoid of specificity.”

While I do believe that gender is a social construct, and I’d very much like to disregard it in these contexts, gender is also how we’ve structured society. And, as we’ve established, having a ‘collective imagination’ is a powerful thing. As a 2023 study stated, “By connecting disparate elements into coherent packages, narratives transform random facts into compelling social tools.” So, it’s unsurprising that those who don’t fall squarely into the male, cisgendered, heterosexual box, have pushed back and defined other narratives.

Stories like that of Achilles and Patroclus are not outliers in mythology. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol.

Dahkotahv Kaye Beckham, a therapist and researcher, laid out a ‘queeroe’s journey’ in his 2021 thesis. In it, unlike Campbell’s hero who is comfortable in his world until the ‘call’, the queeroe has always lived in a world where they don’t fit in, and ultimately refuses to come back to it. Beckham adheres to many of the norms set by Murdock and Campbell in terms of structure. But what he does differently is to explicitly state that he—a Slavic Eastern European White man—has a perspective, and his model may not fit gender-diverse people in other cultures.

Any story that is especially ubiquitous and enduring in a society, which is accepted as a template for what is socially desirable, could be a master narrative.

A 2023 study by researchers in the USA, boldly titled Seeing Your Life Story as a Hero’s Journey Increases Meaning in Life, investigated whether a certain kind of narrative reframing of their lives would help people because social trends have “undercut traditional sources of meaning including religion.” While they did find “initial evidence that enduring cultural narratives like the Hero’s Journey both reflect meaningful lives and can help to create them”, they also speculate that any master narrative could be just as useful.

Any story that is especially ubiquitous and enduring in a society, which is accepted as a template for what is socially desirable, could be a master narrative. These “recognizable narratives […] are more convincing, understandable, and thus meaningful to people.” In short, the hero’s journey is so appealing because it’s a socially and mythologically familiar narrative that many of us are acclimatised to over a lifetime. The study speculated that reframing your life in a template such as the hero’s journey might not translate well outside of spaces like the USA where tales of individual triumph form a fundamental part of how history and culture are shared and recorded.

For that matter, even the heroine’s journey is largely an individual one. Most of the women in my life, especially ones of Murdock’s generation, would actually find nothing recognizable not just in the hero’s journey, but the heroine’s as well. While they might relate to Murdock’s heroine who “gives up herself so that the other—husband, coworker, lover, or child—may gain self”, they haven’t distanced themselves from their feminine side, or were never allowed to. On a broader level, in India and beyond, womanhood and the myths of the feminine have also been inexplicably tied to nation-building, and moral and cultural control.

Retelling

Every time a story is told, it is reshaped by the teller. But the imprint of what used to be can always be found. Take one of the most influential mythical figures in the modern world—the Abrahamic god. He used to be Yahweh, a pagan war god and the consort of Asherah, a mother goddess associated with sacred trees (and snakes, among other creatures, for anyone who wants to go down that rabbit hole). However individualistic his religions portray him as today, the opposite was once true, and the systematic removal of Asherah’s symbol from Yahweh’s altars is recorded in the Bible itself.

The survival of stories that deviate from the current standards of socially acceptable behaviour is proof that it is near impossible to completely erase myths. Despite the best efforts of national governments the world over, indigenous peoples and their stories continue to survive and have an impact.

Written or spoken, every new story and every retelling invites a new imagination. It’s just a matter of whom we listen to.

My grandmother is a collector of stories—from Church, old songs, magazines, anything she can get her hands on. If she heard the same stories that Murdock did, I am sure that her retellings would be very different. But that’s the great beauty of living stories. In The Fairest of Them All (2020), Maria Tatar writes, “Oral narratives […] draw on heterogeneous versions of a story, mixing and mingling, erasing and preserving, destroying and restoring.” Written or spoken, every new story and every retelling invites a new imagination. It’s just a matter of whom we listen to.